President Obama appeared on the Marc Maron WTF podcast show Friday, and while making important points about the Charleston murders and the continuing menace of institutionalized racism used the N-Word to make his point.
The president said, “Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say (here he says the N-word) in public.”
He continued, “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
The president is right, it’s not a matter of being polite; nor is it a matter of only overt discrimination (although this happens all too often); it is a matter of recognizing and struggling against racism in all of its various forms, particularly its institutional features. Here it’s important to recognize the existence of a racist social division of labor. Economist Paul Krugman made precisely this point in an op-ed this morning writing ” the racial divide is still a defining feature of our political economy, the reason America is unique among advanced nations in its harsh treatment of the less fortunate and its willingness to tolerate unnecessary suffering among its citizens.”
That said, the president made a mistake in using the N-word to make his point. In this regard a longstanding campaign has been waged to end its use in any company.
Nearly a year ago, Rev. Al Sharpton himself made the same point responding to news that Justin Bieber had used the term repeatedly while in his teens. Sharpton said, “No one should use the N-word; it has no place in our culture, not in sports and not in music.”
But what about politics in order to point out that it should not be used? Is there a grey area here? Not hardly. The president is the head of state and is therefore responsible for helping set forth both the forms and content of debate. In this conversation the N-Word should be out of place, no matter what the intention. Call it an ideological no-go zone.
It’s likely that President Obama’s supporters, including Rev. Sharpton, will lament its use and point to the larger points made in the interview, including the need for gun control and move on. It’s also likely Obama’s detractors will use it to attack the president’s agenda and peel off sections of his base.
With the 2016 election heating up and issues like fast track (and here again the president is way off base) causing rifts in the democratic coalition, care must be taken to not make matters worse.
The racist-inspired terrorism in South Carolina, the Confederate flag still flying at the state capitol in Columbia – and the new campaign against this, the ongoing spate of police murders of black men and women – all point to racism’s systemic sources.
All must be addressed, including in language. Even when stumbling President Obama has been on the right side of these issues. Let’s acknowledge the mistake, offer a hand up and move on.
Photo: Marc meets Obama.